Tag Archives: Alexis Tsipras

The parallax view

We will probably never find out exactly what happened at Syntagma Square on Thursday, when an anti-austerity protest degenerated into an all-out brawl between members of the Communist union PAME and the black block of rioters intent on wreaking havoc.

The unionists argue that they were aware of a plot by the rioters to disrupt the peaceful protest, as they had done a day earlier, and took measures to stop them. Photographs and video footage seem to support the theory that the hooded troublemakers were lurking among groups of other protesters, biding their team before launching an assault on the riot police in front of Parliament.

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Tribal politics

The booing rose and died again as Piggy lifted the white, magic shell.
“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”
A great clamor rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again.
“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”
Again the clamor and again — “Zup!”
Ralph shouted against the noise.
“Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”
Now Jack was yelling too and Ralph could no longer make himself heard. Jack had backed right against the tribe and they were a solid mass of menace that bristled with spears.

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” a tale of stranded English schoolboys who veer between camaraderie and savagery as they try to survive on an uninhabited island, is a story you don’t forget very easily. Nevertheless, we should be thankful to Greece’s politicians for regularly reminding us of its key themes such as clashing impulses, moral quandaries and the desperate pursuit of power.

Even more than usual, the country’s political scene has closely resembled for the last few weeks the unforgiving and unnegotiable terrain of the island where Ralph, Jack, Piggy, Roger, Simon and the others were cast adrift. We are used to the mundane barbs from George, Antonis, Aleka, Giorgos, Alexis and the others being punctuated by the odd dose of vitriol but the political language recently has utterly caustic. Grave accusations such as those of betrayal, lying and inciting violence are now being thrown about in Parliament like backgammon dice in a kafeneio.

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Reaching the age of consensus

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It was ironic that as the Greek government supposedly went in search of consensus last week, the streets of Athens should look just like the streets of other European capitals. As Prime Minister George Papandreou embarked on his doomed attempt to reach agreement with opposition party leaders, the only place where there seemed to be any unity of opinion was on the streets.

Student protestors in London raged against a coalition government pricing many of them out of university education, Italians vented their frustration at the seemingly impossible survival of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while in Athens private and public sector workers expressed their anger at the latest set of reforms that are changing the face of Greek society.

Amid this turmoil, like the fishing boat skipper setting out for sea as the perfect storm looms, Papandreou cast his nets in the hope of catching a public relations victory. His effort to achieve “consensus” can be seen as nothing else but a frivolous foray into the choppy waters of political gamesmanship when there are much more pressing issues to deal with, such as thousands of Greeks losing their jobs and the country going through a violent adjustment to economic reality.

At a time when Greece, as well as many other countries in Europe are beginning to resemble the fractured British society of the Margaret Thatcher years, one of the former UK prime minister’s comments comes to mind: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” It perfectly sums last week’s aborted attempt to build accord between the parties.

Ostensibly, Papandreou invited the other party leaders for talks to find common ground on the challenging reforms prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and to adopt common positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels at the end of last week, where politicians were due to agree on the details of the permanent support mechanism for members with sovereign debt problems. In reality, though, there were no grounds for believing that any of the political leaders would agree to common positions on the reforms or on what positions Greece should adopt at the EU negotiations.

It was delusional to expect any kind of understanding on the structural changes given that they were due to be voted through Parliament a few hours after the party leaders met Papandreou. It’s no formula for success to encourage someone to join you on a journey when your bags are already packed, the keys are in the ignition and the engine is running. Understandably, none of the other leaders decided to jump in the moving vehicle. As New Democracy chief Antonis Samaras pointed out, there is a world of difference between “consensus” and “consent.” None of the other parties had been consulted about the content of the bill on the restructuring of public utilities such as the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) and the redrafting of labour laws. Once the legislation has been submitted to the House, the role of the opposition parties is to debate it and then vote for or against it – the time for consensus-building has passed. But even at this late stage, the government did all it could to antagonize the opposition rather than encourage unity by submitting the reforms as an emergency bill and thereby limiting debating time to an absolute minimum. It’s no surprise that the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras decided to boycott the talks with Papandreou – being portrayed as an accessory to policies you do not agree with, nor have had any part in shaping is not something that any young politician wants to have on their CV.

The reasoning that Tuesday’s “consensus” talks would firm up Greece’s positions ahead of the EU leaders’ summit was also feeble. Papandreou had already made his government’s ideas on some of the key issues crystal clear both at home and abroad. He had been shouting from the European rooftops for some time that Athens was in favour of the creation of a Eurobond and against private bondholders having to accept lower returns, or a “haircut”, on their investment as part of a permanent bailout scheme. It’s implausible that Papandreou would have suddenly performed a volte-face because Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga or the Popular Orthodox Rally’s (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis expressed misgivings. As it turned out, the Brussels summit was a damp squib rather than a landmark moment demanding national agreement from all of Greece’s politicians.

There is no doubt there are few choices in the sticky position Greece finds itself– there is never much wiggle room when you have been backed into a corner. But this doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on the course being followed to get Greece out of the crisis. After all, it has never been the role of any opposition to provide the sitting government with succour. Its duty has always been to challenge the government’s policies, to highlight its failings and to offer alternatives. One area where Greece’s opposition parties can be seriously criticized is not in their inability to find common ground with PASOK but in their failure to provide plausible alternatives. Samaras developed a pie-in-the-sky scheme to wipe out Greece’s debt by the end of 2011, which was roundly rejected in the November local elections. In democracies, opposition parties have and always will be judged by the quality of their opposition, not the level of consensus they achieve with the government.

Greece is going through a period of immense upheaval, during which, as Samaras said “the terms by which millions of Greeks live are changing.” Clearly, if everybody agreed on the recipe for change, this process would be straightforward but it would also mean our living, breathing democracy would be brain dead. If people are not to question their government’s choices now, then when? Why shouldn’t voters or politicians doubt the efficacy or fairness of some of the EU-IMF-prescribed decisions?

From the latest package of reforms, for instance, few would argue with reducing wages at public enterprises, where many employees had built cash-lined fiefdoms, and cutting costs at public transport companies that are losing taxpayers’ money by the bus-load. In fact, New Democracy supported these provisions, proving that you don’t go in search of consensus; you build it around your ideas. In contrast, it was much more difficult for the opposition parties to back the articles of last week’s bill that allow companies to bypass collective labour contracts by offering employees in-house deals. This is a clear challenge to the rights of employees in the private sector, who unlike their pampered public sector counterparts have only been enjoying the protection offered by collective contracts since the 1990s. These agreements, which blossomed after Greece’s entry into the EU, are designed to give workers more reasonable pay and conditions and shelter from unscrupulous bosses, of whom there are many in Greece. As such, they are completely in keeping with the EU’s ideal of creating fairer, more socially conscious societies. To strip away these rights, which include respectable compensation deals for sacked employees, as jobs dry up and Greeks have to think about how they’re going to feed themselves and their families only increases the sense of insecurity.

Equally importantly, it’s an affront to the section of Greek society that has carried the country for the last few decades. Private sector workers, of whom there are about 2 million in Greece, have been the ones who have consistently paid their taxes and social security contributions – after all, their wages are taxed at source. Whether the employers who have withheld this money have been equally diligent is another question. Yet, despite their unswerving dedication to fairness and the advancement of national cause, it’s these workers that find themselves being punished by the latest measures, which look like a precursor to collective contracts being scrapped altogether and private sector wages being forced down.

In this climate, therefore, it seems unrealistic, almost offensive that voters and opposition politicians are being asked to give their consent without the government making any effort to win what is a crucial argument. The bypassing of Parliament and collective contracts and the mantra that “there is no alternative” does not make for a healthy democracy, or for a public that can find much good in the measures. It’s a mix that leads to people losing their belief in the political system and seeking answers, a voice and, in some cases retribution, on the streets. After all, the way things are going, this is where an increasing number of Greeks will find themselves anyway.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Kathimerini English Edition on December 20, 2010.

Old school

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Who says politics has become a young man’s game? At a time when pension reforms are causing retirement ages to creep upward across Europe, it seems that politicians who may have been facing the twilight of their career are finding a new lease of life and the drive to discover a fresh relevance.

On Sunday, amid an avalanche of goals at the World Cup and the conclusion of New Democracy’s congress in Neo Faliro, it went somewhat unnoticed that a group of just over 500 people gathered in an Athens hotel to launch a new political party, Democratic Left, which will have as its figurehead 61-year-old Fotis Kouvelis. The new grouping has been formed by disgruntled members and supporters of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). In early June, Kouvelis led a breakaway group of four MPs, and members of the so-called “renewal wing” of Synaspismos, the largest party in the SYRIZA coalition. Kouvelis expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the line SYRIZA has been taking and by the apparent short-termism of its young leader, Alexis Tsipras.

Kouvelis was soundly beaten by Tsipras in 2008 when he stood for the SYRIZA leadership. Then it seemed that Tsipras, in his mid-30s, was the sort of new breed of politician that Greece needed – young, enthusiastic and free of the ideological burdens that had accumulated in the baggage carried by the country’s political elite. But his star seems to have been extinguished as quickly as it was catapulted over the Greek political landscape. SYRIZA’s share of the vote dropped to 4.6 percent at the last general election in the wake of Tsipras adopting an equivocal stance on rioting and a firm stand against the European Union.

The breaking point for Kouvelis and his friends seems to have come in SYRIZA’s inability to strike a coherent, realistic approach to the economic crisis and its concomitant effects on Greece. In his scramble to find a position, Tsipras began to resemble a high school pupil guessing for the right answer to the wrong multiple choice question. Under his leadership, SYRIZA’s buzzword, much like the Communist Party, has become “resistance.” But it became clear to Kouvelis that when you push against something that ceases to be there because reality has changed, you fall flat on your face.

“We want a left that is daring, which does not settle for the easy option nor make concessions to popular or short-sighted leftism,” Kouvelis said on Sunday. “We went a left that does not feel it is legitimate to defend all workers’ established rights nor to pander to unions and associations for petty political gains.”

The veteran politician, who briefly served as justice minister in 1989 and has a history in leftist politics that stretches back to the pre-junta era, also made it clear that his new party seeks a closer, not more distant, relationship with Europe. “The economic crisis and the threat to the euro make more Europe necessary: We need a closer union and economic governance,” he said.

There are some 50 leftist political parties in Greece, so if Kouvelis’s timely and carefully weighted words are to be more than just pleasant musings on the country’s predicament, the Democratic Left will have to give voters who are lost between PASOK’s lack of conviction and SYRIZA’s lack of awareness something they can latch onto. Kouvelis also said that environmentalism will play a significant role in the party’s policies, perhaps presaging a cooperation with the Ecologist Greens, who were just 0.5 percent short of 3 percent needed for them to gain seats in Parliament in last year’s general election. If Democratic Left can attract support from all these different sources, then it could be looking at a share of the vote at the next poll that would give it double-digit seats in Parliament and a potential say in the formation of the government.

Bearing in mind that New Democracy’s ousted MP Dora Bakoyannis could soon set up her own centrist party as well, Kouvelis could be one of the draftsmen of Greece’s changing political architecture. But all that is still a long way off and will depend to a great extent on whether the gamble of placing Kouvelis – a respectable but hardly inspiring politician who looks rather fatigued after years of public service – in the frontline will pay off. Democratic Left is banking on the crisis fueling the feelings of frustration with politicians who cast themselves as modern-day managers but who manage to do nothing but squander the faith placed in them. This exasperation means that figures of trust – politicians who have stood the test of time and retained their integrity – are a rare and valued commodity.

The appeal of public figures that command respect was evident in Germany’s presidential contest, where the 70-year-old civil rights-campaigning pastor Joachim Gauck had been outpacing conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel’s candidate, the 51-year-old Lower Saxony state premier Christian Wulff, in opinion polls ahead of Wednesday’s vote. Gauck, dubbed “Grandpa Obama,” forced an unexpected third ballot in the 1,244-seat federal assembly before Wulff was declared the winner (there is no public vote to decide who fills the largely ceremonial role).

The decision of the opposition, center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens to pick Gauck, who was responsible after the fall of the Berlin Wall for exposing many crimes committed by the East German secret police, as their candidate says much about where politics in Germany and in Europe as a whole finds itself. It’s an indication that level-headedness is now a more useful political virtue than it has been for a long time.

“It’s so wonderful that we have you,” Merkel told Gauck at his recent birthday celebration, “because when you see a wound you always put your finger on it.” In fact, Gauck proved that his finger was on the pulse of German society. “We are at a crossroads in Germany,” he said. “There’s a deep-seated sense of anxiety right now, and we need a new impetus. I notice that people aren’t just interested in consumption and soccer, they also want to be able to believe in people and institutions again.”

Gauck described himself as a “leftist liberal conservative,” reflecting a growing sense that in the current climate strict adherence to a single ideology will simply put up more barriers rather than help overcome obstacles. Kouvelis and his friends similarly seem to have rejected dogmatism in favor of pragmatism and their success or failure may depend on whether this is a switch of convenience or conviction. Gauck perfectly summed up the challenge facing today’s policy makers when he said: “The German people have a deep longing for credibility in politics.” Ultimately, if they are going to make a difference, it is this credibility that politicians must discover, regardless of whether they are young or old.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on July 2, 2010.

A third way

Illustration by Manos Symeonakia

A prime minister who’s abandoned his socialist roots, an opposition that doesn’t know how to profit from the failings of a beleaguered government, a terrifying deficit that will take years to tame, a staggering rate of borrowing, fear that the International Monetary Fund will have to be called in and a smaller opposition party that is threatening to shake up the established order: All of these apply to both Britain and Greece apart from the last one. Whereas the Liberal Democrats are set to capitalize on economic uncertainty and political fatigue by making a discernible impact on the May 6 general elections, Greek politics remains devoid of a credible third voice.

The way the Liberals, and particularly their leader Nick Clegg, have exploded into life during this election campaign has defied perceived political wisdom and will undoubtedly make other European parties that have struggled to make an impact sit up and take note. Before Britain’s first-ever televised leaders’ debate last Thursday, Clegg’s fieriest moment was when as a drunken 16-year-old exchange student, he set fire to a German professor’s collection of rare cacti. On Thursday, though, he lit the election campaign’s blue touch paper.

Confident, clear and coherent, Clegg captured the imagination of many of the 10 million viewers. Regardless of what questions members of the audience posed, Clegg had an underlying aim to connect with the frustration people feel about power ending up in the hands of the same two parties all the time – a sentiment Greek voters could sympathize with. “Nick Clegg possessed the great advantage of having a simple, clear message that fitted with his wider campaign,” wrote Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. “That message is that Britain has been let down for decades by the other two. His most resonant line of the night was when he said: ‘The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.’”

Clegg brought something different to the table: Labour leader Gordon Brown was the full fat milk that has turned sour, Conservative leader David Cameron was the cappuccino froth that dissolves as soon as you touch it but the Liberal Democrat was the raw carrot juice that could inject new energy into the country. Clegg’s impact was not just down to his accomplished appearance though. The essence of his popularity – which could help his party become a partner in coalition government next month – derived from the fact that the electorate was being presented with a credible alternative, one that would allow them to act on their frustrations with the two main parties but not risk putting power in the hands of an incompetent or irrelevant one instead. “The Clegg bounce seems to me to speak of an electorate that wants to change the terms of the contest they are being offered and is simply looking for a means to do it,” wrote Martin Kettle in The Guardian. “They want to show two fingers to the main parties. They want to drag them down to size, knock them off their pedestal.”

The unaligned voter is a growing phenomenon in Greece but despite the country facing many similar political and economic challenges to Britain, there is no evidence of a third party emerging as a serious player here. The Communist Party (KKE), which received the third largest share of the vote in last year’s election, is content with engaging in spoiling tactics. Exercising control over unions that punch above their weight is the limit of the Communists’ political ambition, as was evident this week when a light sprinkling of PAME members obstructed hotels in central Athens and Piraeus port.

The nationalists of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) have steadily improved their ratings in recent years but their message remains too populist, too lacking in substance and, in some instances, too hateful to carry any considerable credence. LAOS will continue to generate passionate support from a relatively small band of voters, as long as it prefers to devote itself to tittle-tattle rather than real policies.

The only party with the potential to break out of this perpetual cycle is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). At a time when jobs are at stake and quality of life is set to nosedive, a competent leftist party should be able to make itself heard. Die Linke, the emerging party of the left in Germany, has proven that the financial and economic crisis provides fertile ground for attracting supporters who are disillusioned with capitalism. Although a centrist party, the Liberal Democrats are further to left on some issues, such as taxation, than the Labour party.

So, why isn’t the formula working for SYRIZA? Because, unlike Clegg, leftist leader Alexis Tsipras chooses to ignore that in order to attract the skeptical voter, you have to go to him, not call him over to you. SYRIZA prefers to paint itself into a corner, to turn itself into an insurgent party conducting raids against the government, rather than to open its embrace and draw strength from greater numbers. A typical example came this week when, with the prospect of Greece borrowing from the IMF growing by the day, Tsipras demanded a referendum on the issue. Rather than the leader of a mature party, it made him look like a high school student calling for a vote on whether pupils should be made to sit exams. If Tsipras cannot understand that recourse to the IMF will not be a matter of choice, then he really should not be allowed anywhere near a political platform. And, if Greece were to hold this referendum, what next? Presumably, the majority of Greeks would say “no” to the IMF. Would we then hold another referendum to decide who we borrow from instead?

Tsipras’s suggestion looks like nothing more than a juvenile stunt. It ignores the fact that more than four in 10 Greeks voted PASOK into power to take decisions on their behalf. Yes, the economic situation has changed dramatically but part of a government’s mission is to adapt. What Greece’s smaller parties refuse to accept, unlike the Liberal Democrats, is that their real responsibility is to provide a credible alternative, not just channel bitterness and frustration. Political power lies in making decisions, not just in voicing your opinion. As long as KKE, LAOS and SYRIZA are content with being backseat drivers, Greek voters will not have a party with the potential to lead them along a different, third, way. And this, rather than the IMF or the public deficit, is what will make the country poorer.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on April 23.